City reverses decision on facilities' closure

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PORT ST. JOE — When Mayor Rex Buzzett moved to close city buildings last week to private functions due to rising COVID-19 positivity rates, he had no way of knowing he just might be endangering ice sculptures set to be flown in from Atlanta for Simona Williams’ 60th birthday party.

By the end of a special meeting Tuesday called to address the decision to close the facilities, though, Williams received one more gift – the city eased back on its decision and avoided ruining the long-planned gathering orchestrated by Williams’ daughter at the Centennial Building for Thursday, Jan. 14.

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Buzzett opened Tuesday’s meeting explaining that the county’s positivity rate is not only higher than the 10 percent that’s considered a critical marker, but had hit 21% and that was a concern to both him and Sarah Quaranta, head of the Gulf County Health Department. The two talked and decided to close city facilities like the Centennial Building, 300 Allen Memorial Way, to slow the spread.

“Quite a few of them had been reserved for different functions,” Buzzett explained. “I, of course, opened up a can of worms to say the least and I thought you guys should share in some of the fun with that.”

The Centennial Building, in particular, is a popular spot for weddings, birthdays, large gatherings and events like the 10th Annual Panhandle Sportsman’s Banquet that filled the large building. Most of the discussion centered on weddings and children's birthday parties.

As city commissioners learned, it wasn’t so much an issue of making the buildings unavailable for future events until COVID-19 rates drop as it was making them unavailable to people who had already booked them and invested time and resources into their event. Like Simona Williams’ daughter.

Buzzett laid out his reasoning for commissioners before opening the floor for discussion.

He noted the rapid rise in positivity tests and the need to take action.  He shared a letter from Quaranta expressing concern about a 21% positivity rate.

“Our numbers are high,” Buzzett said, “they’re too high and they’re going to get higher.”

There was concern about overburdening medical facilities and Buzzett noted that a lot of people had made a lot of sacrifices, so closing the facilities to outside events would be prudent and people would need to adjust given the nation is in the middle of a pandemic.

But when he opened the discussion the only real support that emerged was to not allow any new bookings while the positivity rate was that high but to honor reservations already made.

“I have reservations about canceling events that are real close to happening,” said Commissioner Scott Hoffman, who noted schools are not cancelling sports or restricting practices. “I’m trying to weigh out the benefits versus taking away the event.

“On one hand it’s easy to say, ‘Let’s close all our buildings down.,’ “ he continued. “And then when you start looking at it from the person’s side, that’s when you really have to gauge what are you getting out of it versus the effect it has on the people who have it reserved.”

Hoffman floated the idea of allowing pre-registered events to continue but not accepting any new reservations until the rate was lower. As a point of discussion, he said the commission could pick a number – in this case a positivity rate of 15% - and once they begin accepting reservations it would be with the caveat that if the rate rose to 15% the event would be cancelled. This way, he said, people would know in advance they were taking a chance and exactly what was involved.

After some discussion, the commissioners agreed that the Health Department should be involved in that part of the discussion, and that for this meeting they should vote on what to do about already scheduled events.

Though the meeting was nearing an end, neither Williams nor her birthday party had been specifically mentioned. But she approached the podium to offer a couple of “thank you” gifts to commissioners.

First, she said, she appreciated that they assumed all birthday parties must be for “kids,” but that the one she was concerned about was hers.

“In this particular case, I’m the kid,” she joked. “My daughter has planned for an entire year for my 60th birthday and I’ll celebrate being 60 (Jan. 14) the Good Lord willing.”

Williams said her daughter has handled the entire affair with her own money, rented the building about 6 months ago because it was big enough for the guests to practice social distancing and that there was a lot invested that could not be recovered if the party was cancelled.

“She has paid for the decorations, she has paid for the cake, she has paid for the entertainment,” said Williams, who also noted her father was a former city commissioner. “And I understand I have some surprise visitors by way of airlines and ice sculptures from Atlanta, Georgia.

“So y’all can see why we’re all upset, can’t you?”

The answer was yes as commissioners voted 5-0 to allow already scheduled events to occur, not book new ones for now and work with the health department on the safest way to proceed once positivity rates drop below 10 percent.

And while the mayor voted “yes” as well, he closed with a plea.

“I would like to say one thing before we finish and I’ll get off my soapbox,” Buzzett said. “Please, for the safety of everyone,” practice social distancing at the event, wear facemasks and be careful.

“Please help us keep this rate down because we’ve got a lot of old folks in town like I am that we need to protect.”

This article originally appeared on The Star: City reverses decision on facilities' closure

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